Have you ever thought about the power of a name? I grew up in Slave Lake, Alberta, a name that comes from the Slavey people a name of European origin that is derogatory, or at best misappropriation. The name 'Slavey' refers to people who call themselves Denѐ, which translates simply to 'people'. Their are stories like this all over Turtle Island...
The name my parents gave me 'Sandra' means defender of man or helper of humanity, which is actually very appropriate if you know me. My last name Lamouche, meaning 'the fly' was given to my great grandfather because he was a hard worker, it was a nickname. Later, the missionaries told him it was because he was so insignificant, like a fly.
My Blackfoot name, Itamspiakii, translates to Happy Dancing Woman and comes from the deer family. This name has many meanings- It is a reminder to be happy and think positive. It is motivation and encouragement to keep dancing, to not give up. It carries the meaning of what a woman is to Indigenous peoples, including culture carrier and life giver. The deer is a graceful and gentle creature, which I try to embody in my dance and everyday life, this also connects me to this land, and to the natural world. This name carries so much guidance, wisdom and resilience.
At one time all over North America we only had our Indigenous names, which were not only spiritual and sacred, but they were also inspiring and empowering. Names could be passed on from your relatives and ancestors, with the expectation that you live up to that name and the greatness and achievements of the person who carried the name before you, as is the case with my two sons. Your name could change over your lifetime, therefore your identity could change. Through your achievements and actions could earn an appropriate name. In essence, the family or situation you were born into did not predict your path in life, you could persevere and overcome, you could change your life and your resilience was honored.
The name of the first hoop dancer in the Ojibway story is 'Pukawiss' which means the disowned one, they say nobody remembers his real name. Despite being disowned Pukawiss creates the hoop dance and makes a name for himself (no pun intended) as a renowned artist, storyteller and performer. His actions speak louder than his name and his legacy remains a powerful part of Indigenous identity to this day.
Indigenous names are an important part of building resilience. "Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences (source)".
In Canada, Indigenous peoples were systematically given European names through assimilation policies, in some cases, such as residential schools Indigenous people were sometimes given numbers to replace their names. Reclaiming Indigenous names does not only build resilience it also a step towards reconciliation. As the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action #17 states:
"We call upon all levels of government to enable residential school Survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system by waiving administrative costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents, such as birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses, health cards, status cards, and social insurance numbers"
Indigenous peoples are reclaiming Indigenous names all over, from personal names to community names and names of nations as an important act of reconciliation and resilience, and also an important way to take back our power as people and nations, for healing, self-determination and sovereignty.
A few months ago my sisters and I were invited to be part of the Grand Opening of the brand new City of Lethbridge, Community Arts Center (CASA) consisting of a week-long celebration. Our collaborative, multi-disciplinary hoop dance performance titled, The Sacred Hoop, was on May 14, 2013.
The main piece in the show was Sagowsko (Bush Woman), a nickname given to me from my mother because I enjoy picking medicines in the forest. Sagowsko was inspired by the hoop dance story I was taught when I first started learning to hoop dance in 2005. It is a Nishnaabeg story and can be found in Basil Johnston’s book “The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway”. The story is about Pukawiss, the disowned one, who was fascinated with nature. He became disowned by his father who wished he was more like his older brother a great hunter and warrior. Pukawiss leaves his family and does performances for different villages and eventually creates the hoop dance.
This was the fourth time this piece has been performed and has continued to grow and evolve. We added a new opening scene that expressed the sacredness and strengths of Native women. This was followed by the exploration or discovery scene in which the main character, Sagowsko, is seen exploring in nature and mimicking the animals around her. The third scene is being lost and alone and represents the disconnection we have when we do not fit into the expectations of society. In this case Sagowsko was supposed to be picking berries like her sisters, but instead she wanted to explore the world around her. As a result she finds herself alone and lost… The final scene is about re-connection and the gift of the hoop dance. From being alone and afraid Sagowsko finds herself on the ground, where she very literally feels ‘the heartbeat of the earth’ and is able to re-connect with the world around her. The ‘hoop spirits’ enter and imbue her with their spiritual energies, the energies of creation… birds, butterflies, eagles and dance. It represents a sort of healing ritual one may experience when they are able to be themselves, to live in a connected way with their identity and the world around them. Through re-connection there is also a process of re-creation. Each time this piece has been performed it has brought audience members to tears, even though people comment that it is beautiful and uplifting.
Sagowsko was very much an exploration of Resurgence Theory, which is a relatively new theory in Indigenous Knowledge although based in very ancient stories and traditions. This theory is explained by Dr. Leanne Simpson in her book, “Dancing on Our Turtles Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence” where she talks about the Seven Fires Prophecy of the Nishnaabeg. There are similar stories found in other First Nations cultures, including Blackfoot and Cree, although the details are slightly different. It often begins with conflict or war followed by a great flood and finally the re-creation of the earth by the ‘trickster’ (Waynabozhoo/ Weesagechak/ Naapi) with the help of the animals. Simpson explains that this is not a creation story, but a re-creation story. She describes it as a cycle of creation – destruction – re-creation found in Nishnaabeg thought.
After interpreting the hoop dance story of Pukawiss through the lens of resurgence theory I began to see the cycle identified by Dr. Leanne Simpson as one of connection – disconnection – re-connection. This reflected the teachings of the hoop dance and represented the re-connection with identity and with the self, which is reflected in the story of Pukawiss and Sagowsko as well as in my own life. For me, it was the hoop dance that allowed me to find a re-connection with myself, my identity and the world around me.
In the Nishnaabeg story a piece of earth is placed on the turtle’s back and, “Waynabozhoo began to sing. The animals danced in a clockwise circular fashion and the winds blew, creating a huge and widening circle. Eventually, they created the huge island on which we live, North America” (69). Dr. Simpson’s interpretation proclaims, “Together, we have all of the pieces. In Nishnaabeg thought, resurgence is dancing on our turtle’s back; it is visioning and dancing new realities and worlds into existence” (70). This was especially meaningful for me because inclusiveness and working together is embodied in the hoop itself. Also, the image of ‘dancing new realities and worlds into existence’ was re-affirming as a dancer and emerging choreographer, because I intentionally focus on healing and Nitonahk Miyo Pimadisiwin- Seeking a Good Life in my choreography. Dance is one of the ways that we can re-connect the sacred hoop which has been broken through colonization and assimilation as we re-create our reality to benefit all of creation. Hiy-hiy.
This performance sponsored by the Allied Arts Council of Lethbridge.
On December 16, 2012 I was asked to do a short hoop dance at the World Cross Country Ski Championships in Canmore, Alberta. The event would be televised around the world.
Meanwhile, a movement was happening all over Indian country and beyond, a movement sparked by a people’s continued oppression, a movement based in the cultural values and traditions of First Nations. A movement that continues to bring people together on a worldwide scale in the name of unity, peace, justice for all people, for all beings, for all of the earth.
As I prepared to take the world stage for a few short minutes, I was reminded of the history of Indigenous dance that I have been researching. I thought of the early to mid- 1900’s, when our dances were made illegal in Canada and the U.S. as they were thought to be a hindrance to colonization and assimilation. Yet, during this same time, Wild West shows prevailed where dancers were put on stage to depict the colonial view of the west. Our ancestors continued to dance, whether on stage or in secret, knowing that the most important thing in the face of colonization was to continue to be ‘indian’ and continue to dance, pray, speak the language... simply being is decolonizing.
For a moment I felt I understood them. I understood the need to dance, no matter what. I had a glimpse of what our ancestors went through as they battled colonization. Even in the most subtle and humble ways as simply dancing, even in Wild West shows.
My heart was heavy that day with the burden of responsibilities that come with dance and knowledge. I wanted to go on stage and shout at the injustices that were being committed against our people, our land... Instead I did my hoop dance. A subtle and humble resistance. Simply being, being myself, being Nehiyaw (Cree) was an act of decolonization.
This experience awakened me to something I have always known – I am my ancestors. WE are our ancestors. Not just descendants of our ancestors, but we are experiencing the same things they have experienced for years! We are fighting the same fight. We are being our ancestors, by being ourselves.
As I thought of Idle No More and the goal of protecting the land I was also reminded of the signing of Treaty 8 (1899). It was the Nehiyawak who asked for a treaty after settlers had been coming into Nehiyawak territory and exploiting the land and resources without permission. I was again reminded that yes, WE ARE OUR ANCESTORS. Here we are 2013 still fighting for the same recognition, still against the exploitation of our land and resources.
It’s still the same... but there is one difference. In 1899 it was 500 Nehiyawak who gathered and stopped the settlers from entering their territory until a treaty was signed... Today, thanks to technology and social media, it is millions, if not billions, of people worldwide who are gathering. When one person does a subtle and humble resistance it is indeed admirable... but when millions of people participate in the same subtle and humble resistance around the world? Not so subtle and humble anymore... This unity of people, voices and actions have created an unparalleled and far reaching transformative movement... What is now being called a Global Super-Movement. Idle No More has swept the globe being one of the top news stories a top trending hash-tag on social media. All over the world people are being awakened to the fact that WE ARE OUR ANCESTORS – WE ARE IDLE NO MORE!
This week is the premiere of “When It Rains” a one-minute silent film commissioned by imagineNATIVE’s Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative. The film can be seen October 15-21, 2012 at locations across Canada including Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, Toronto and Ottawa. The film was Co-created by award winning Director, Cara Mumford and Dancer and Choreographer, Sandra Lamouche; Guest Choreographer (hip hop), Sugarray Robinson (Toronto, ON); and Guest Choreographer (Indigenous Contemporary), Rulan Tangen (Santa Fe, NM). The film combines hoop dance and hip hop to, “represent the collective journey of the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. While each of these women’s stories is unique, they share a commonality in their collective experience of identity loss and voices silenced” (Cara Mumford, Project Description of ‘When it Rains’).
It has been almost ten years since I first heard about the Stolen Sisters and started to get involved. My first time advocating for the Stolen Sisters was sitting at a table by myself in the University of Lethbridge atrium during one of the Native Awareness Week events in 2003. I printed off the petition and information and collected signatures from students and staff. A year or so later I was invited to the Lethbridge Public Library to be a part of a panel discussion for the film about one of our missing sisters called ‘Finding Dawn’. I remember saying that if Aboriginal women were to be protected and acknowledged as having human rights then we would also have to acknowledge treaty rights, which include the rights to our land and resources, something I believe stands in the way of treating Indigenous peoples everywhere as human beings.
A few years later, wanting to learn more about my family history, I asked my mother what happened to my kokum (my grandmother), her mother. She told me the story of my kokum Sarah Cardinal and how she had been hit by a drunk driver and her body thrown into the lake, she was later found frozen. This happened over fifty years ago and is still an unsolved murder case.
In 2006 my youngest sister Julie Lamouche went missing from our home in Lethbridge, Alberta for about one month. She was with an abusive and controlling boyfriend who would take her different places without telling her or anyone else where they were going. Thanks to the guidance of a medicine man in Saskatchewan and my auntie’s spiritual gifts she was found near Edmonton, Alberta. That fall I attended the first annual Lethbridge Sisters in Spirit Candlelight Vigil.
These two stories tell the worst case and best case scenarios for Aboriginal women who go missing in Canada. For my kokum, as an unsolved murder case I believe that the police have not done enough to bring justice to her murderer(s). In my sister’s case, again, the police actually did very little to help find her. It was my parents and family who searched for her. It was because of the spiritual help that we knew where to look for her in the first place.
In June and July 2012 I began rehearsals and filming of ‘When it Rains’ which forced me to re-live the anger, hurt, worry and frustration from my kokum and sister’s story. This allowed me to re-evaluate the situation of the Stolen Sisters campaign, Aboriginal women, my community, family and myself. For the first scene I did a traditional hoop dance in a traditional Cree dress as I thought of my mother and how her actions and words embody so much of what our traditional roles as women in Cree culture is all about. How spiritual connectedness and prayer is such a major part of her life and how I aim to be as peaceful and grounded as she is. The second scene was the hip hop choreography which represented the pressures of mainstream society on Aboriginal women, such as glass ceilings, systemic racism, oppression and stereotypes. Here I thought of the injustice of my kokum and my sister and their experiences. This helped me to tap into the anger and frustration surrounding the issues faced by Aboriginal women. The third scene was the rain which washed away the negative (represented by statistics written on my arm and hand) and symbolized healing. This was followed by the ‘fusion’ look which combined hip hop and hoop dance styles together. This represented the ability for Aboriginal women to live in both contemporary and traditional worlds and maintain healthy and balanced lifestyles. I was not only empowered by the women in my family and other women around me (such as Cara and Rulan) but also by being able to spread awareness, understanding and inspiration to others as well. In the final scene I set forth my intention for the future, my own and future generations, to move forward on the path towards healing and well being.
In August 2012 while in Vancouver I was able to attend a gathering on the Downtown Eastside one of the main areas of focus for the Stolen Sisters and Sisters in Spirit. Here I witnessed one of the largest gatherings I have attended for the cause. I witnessed group choreography by the Butterflies in Spirit. A group of 12 Aboriginal women in Vancouver who create dance performances dedicated to, “...raising awareness about violence against aboriginal women, remembering and honoring missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls across Canada, promoting positive role models, aiming to provide advocacy and support services for the families of missing women” (Butterflies in Spirit). They performed a powerful piece that honored the missing and murdered Aboriginal women using both traditional and contemporary song, dance and imagery.
On October 4, 2012 my sister Maria and I volunteered for the Sisters in Spirit Candlelight Vigil in Lethbridge, Alberta to honor our kokum Sarah and all the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. After all these years, all that I have learnt and all that my family has gone through it was a very emotional day for me. I found myself smudging by noon that day because of the intense emotions I was feeling... wishing I could have met my kokum, thankful my sister was found safe, all the stories and statistics, how awe inspiring the Aboriginal women in my life are and how little recognition they get. It was a chilly evening and as I danced I began to lose feeling in my fingers ‘how am I going to do this?’ I thought; which was immediately followed by a thought of my kokum Sarah and her frozen body. I thought, ‘I’m doing this for her’.
I was thankful to have my spirituality as recourse for the intensity of the day. My prayers, hopes, dreams and perseverance serves as a silver lining to the oppression of Aboriginal women, and I believe that our ancestors would want us to always look for that silver lining. My mother, knowing how it was to grow up without a mother of her own, did everything she could and more to provide us with a safe, happy and healthy environment to grow. My sister, now a mother of a beautiful toddler boy is in college and a life coach, promoting healthy lifestyles.
We are all moving forward together... towards healing and well being.
Kisaageetin... You are loved by me.
imagineNATIVE's Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative
Cara Mumford’s blog post on the making of ‘When it Rains’
Amnesty International- Stolen Sisters
Native Women’s Association of Canada- Sisters In Spirit
Photos by Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works Studio
'Cree Woman Speaking' is a space to share my voice. My goal is to spread awareness and share wisdom as I learn and grow as a dancer, choreographer, and woman. My passion is to show the healing power of dance and culture. I love learning from elders, experience, and research and being able to synthesize Native and non-Native ways of knowing!
All Cara Mumford Cree Hoop Dance Idle No More Indigenous Dance International Women's Day 2017 Life Givers Missing And Murdered Aboriginal Women Native Hoop Dance Native Women Nehiyawak Reconciliation Resilience Rulan Tangen Sacred Hoop Sisters In Spirit Stolen Sisters Sugarray Robinson When It Rains World Championship Hoop Dance Contest